SINGAPORE: A three-month trial of on-demand autonomous bus services at two locations began on Monday (Jan 25), as part of Singapore's efforts to make such vehicles commercially viable.
Customers will have to pay to use the buses - which will operate at Singapore Science Park 2 and Jurong Island - marking the first time self-driving vehicles are operating commercially in the country.
A 7m-long bus, which is able to carry up to 10 seated passengers, will run a six-stop route between the Haw Par Villa MRT station on the Circle Line and The Galen building at Science Park 2 between 10am and 5pm.
Commuters will have to use the Zipster app - developed by SMRT spin-off mobilityX - to book their rides, which will cost 20 cents regardless of distance.
Meanwhile a 12m-long bus with a capacity of 26 seated passengers will operate a 10-stop route on Jurong Island between 11.30am and 2.30pm on weekdays, providing workers with easy access to the amenities centre Oasis @ SAKRA.
Passengers there will have to use the SWATRide app developed by SWAT Mobility, which is part of the Goldbell engineering and transport group, with rides costing S$1.
The buses have a maximum speed of 25kmh, with a service ambassador onboard to assist commuters.
A safety driver will also be onboard to take over the wheel in case of emergencies.
For the Science Park 2 route, the driver will also manually operate the vehicle when it leaves the Science Park area and heads towards the Haw Par Villa station.
Both trials will run until Apr 30.
The buses were developed by ST Engineering, with mapping technology provided by map tech firm GPS Lands.
ST Engineering had previously run a three-month trial of on-demand autonomous shuttle buses on Sentosa in 2019, ferrying about 6,000 passengers along a 5.7km route on the island.
Public transport operators SMRT and SBS Transit will be in charge of operations for Science Park 2 and Jurong Island respectively.
A NEW INDUSTRY FOR SINGAPORE
Deploying the buses is the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Robotics, an industry-led coalition formed by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) to "promote and accelerate sustainable deployment of robotics in Singapore".
The coalition is led by ST Engineering group president and chief executive officer (CEO) Vincent Chong, together with HOPE Technik CEO Peter Ho.
"In order to gain more data and insights that will be valuable to the development of future urban mobility services, the two routes differ in physical conditions, commuter and partner mix, service and vehicle type, as well as operation concepts," said the AfA on Robotics in a release.
The coalition added that the trials, which are facilitated by the Economic Development Board and the Land Transport Authority, will enable its partners to "further develop and refine their capabilities, expertise and service delivery, thus strengthening the local AV (autonomous vehicles) ecosystem".
“The AfA not only supports the Smart Nation initiatives but will also build up Singapore’s reputation as a leading global operator and provider of end-to-end systems for autonomous transport for cities looking to implement sustainable, urban transport solutions. We also fulfill our passion of improving lives through robotics and autonomous technology,” said HOPE Technik's Mr Ho.
ST Engineering's Mr Chong said the long-term goal is to develop a new industry in Singapore, with solutions that can be deployed in the global market as well as enhance the transport system here.
AfA will evaluate the findings of the current trials when they end before "ascertaining next steps".
The AfA said it has been working with the unions to create relevant training and upskilling pathways for bus captains who will then be able to take on jobs such as managing commuter experience and overseeing the autonomous bus management system.
Union leaders and workers were worried about their jobs and livelihoods when autonomous vehicles first made their appearance here, said National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Melvin Yong.
However, visits to trial sites allowed union leaders to see for themselves how the technology would help uplift the sector and lead to better work prospects, he added.
“To help our transport workers familiarise themselves with AV, the union pushed for experienced bus captains to be deployed as AV operators for the various trials," said Mr Yong.
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Speaking to the media on Monday, Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung said the adoption of autonomous vehicles could help alleviate the manpower crunch in the public bus sector, reducing the sector's reliance on foreign manpower.
However, drivers would still be needed onboard such self-driving buses in case of "exceptional conditions", though he noted the nature of the job as well as the skills needed would have to change in light of the new technology.
He cautioned however that it may take up to a decade before autonomous buses become more commonplace here.
"This is exciting technology, but it will still take several years before you see it running around HDB towns, offering bus services without someone actively driving," said Mr Ong.
AVs have been tested on the roads here since 2015. A trial on the use of driverless shuttles to ferry passengers in three areas - Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District - is expected to begin in the next few years.
In July last year, consulting firm KPMG ranked Singapore as the country best prepared for the adoption and acceptance of AVs in its annual Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index.